WORDS: NICK JUDD
PHOTOGRAPHY: VINCENT TAYLOR
It was spring 1988 and Wokingham Town were enjoying their greatest-ever season. Regulars to the club’s modest Finchampstead Road ground were daring to dream not just of Wembley but of a historic treble including the Berks and Bucks Cup and promotion to the Conference. They couldn’t, could they?
It’s April 9, 1988, 4.04pm to be exact, and Jimmy Greaves is finding out that football isn’t always ‘a funny old game’.
He’s not alone.
While the Tottenham legend watches a young Alan Shearer break his record as the youngest player to score a hat-trick in England’s top flight (by 1,145 days), my nine-year-old heart is being cruelly ripped in two by Vauxhall Conference and FA Trophy veterans Telford United.
Not that I should have been surprised.
Ahead of the Shropshire club’s visit to Wokingham for an FA Trophy semi-final, second leg encounter; I would have read all about their cup pedigree in the matchday programme (priced just 40p).
The Bucks were two-time winners of the FA Trophy and recent conquerors of Wigan Athletic, Preston North End and Bradford City in the FA Cup. Wokingham had made it to the first round of the FA Cup for the first time in 1982/83 and were recent cup winners themselves, although it’s fair to say the Berks and Bucks Cup would probably have been top-trumped by Telford’s more impressive exploits.
However, Wokingham were enjoying their greatest-ever season and regulars to the club’s modest Finchampstead Road ground had been daring to dream not just of Wembley but of an historic treble also including the Berks and Bucks Cup (again) and promotion to the Vauxhall Conference. Indeed, had we not succumbed to a disappointing 3-0 thumping at Hayes four days earlier in another semi-final, this time the AC Delco Cup [no laughing at the back, please], it could have been a quadruple.
It’s fair to say Wokingham is known more for its market heritage than it’s football, although the club produced a number of players who went on to bigger and better things. Famous exports included Darren Barnard who boasted a slick side parting and an even slicker left boot, and who went on to play for Chelsea, Barnsley and Wales. Then there was Terry Brown, part of Wokingham’s coaching set up and who used to write the club’s history column in the programme alongside Ernie Howe. He went on to lead Hayes, Aldershot and AFC Wimbledon through the football pyramid.
Wokingham had been founded in 1875 and the 1980s were as good as it got for Berkshire’s fourth-oldest team. The club’s rise to the Vauxhall Opel league in 1981 was its pinnacle but the club had found it hard to settle at that level. A fourth-place finish in 1985 was sandwiched between flirtations with relegation, which is why this particular season – and its cup runs – had caught the imagination. There was a feeling that success in any or all fronts could be potentially game changing for the club. Manager Roy Merryweather, a gentle giant of a man, had assembled a hard-working side with flair on the flanks and a dogged determination at its core.
This combination had been enough to see off Macclesfield Town in the previous round. The Silkmen had been promoted to the Conference and reached the third round of the FA Cup the previous season, putting four past Carlisle and Rotherham before losing to Port Vale. A remarkable crowd of 1,719 packed into see Wokingham’s historic 2-0 win, which resulted in several hundred fans – more than our average home league gate – travelling to Telford to watch a 2-0 defeat in the semi-final first leg.
Telford seemed a long way away to a nine-year old whose parents’ house was a six-minute walk from Wokingham’s home ground. Moreover, most of our league opponents, Yeovil Town aside, were within a short drive (think Slough Town, Windsor & Eton, Farnborough and Basingstoke). The close proximity of these teams made the league uber competitive and at times lively. Windsor in particular was a rivalry Danny Dyer might have described as ‘naughty’, even if they played within a stone’s throw of the Queen’s bedroom window.
Each club at that level had its own unique eccentricities. Bishop’s Stortford had a slightly intimidating metal cage surrounding their players’ tunnel, Dulwich Hamlet an old lady who would shake her rattle relentlessly while screeching ‘Duuulllwwwiiicchhhhh’. Ours was a sloping pitch, which despite the protestations of all visiting managers absolutely had the potential to make a difference to proceedings.
The standard wasn’t great but the overall experience was captivating. Close proximity to the players meant you’d often get a high five or a wink from the keeper when he placed his towel in the net. It also allowed for memorable exchanges on and off the pitch. Together with best friend, dads and Sunday side team-mates we made the pilgrimage most Saturdays until the pull of professional football proved too strong. And in the unlikely event I couldn’t make a home game I could still hear the pre-match music via the club’s tinny tannoy and the distant rumble of applause and cheers from the garden. During midweek games, I could see beyond an old industrial estate over the road and catch the haze underneath the floodlights. Magical.
The ground was the embodiment of non-league football. It was old and decrepit, but it was ours and we loved it.
Those arriving to home games by car were confronted by a blind turn before a steep rise full of potholes. The stadium itself sat between forks in the train track and was flanked by routes to London and Guildford. Trains would often stop at a red light during games and shoppers/day trippers would watch on in bemusement. It was double cheers all round if a ball was punted over one of the stands onto the track or better, hit a train.
We would position ourselves behind whichever goal Wokingham were shooting towards. If the players were forced to change ends as a result of the coin toss we’d often miss a minute or two of action while we walked behind the stand to the other end. The exception was our mate, Dougie, who would routinely turn up just before half-time to avoid paying the entrance fee. At the break we would make our way behind the training rooms – shouting abuse/encouragement was easy, the smell of liniment hypnotic – to the other end.
Behind one goal, a wooden chipboard panel behind and a net above for wayward shooting enclosed an aisle capable of holding five men deep. Both were used a lot. The other end had a tiered terrace of sorts and was hugely bigger but often vacuous. Quite often we would sit on the wall that separated terrace from pitch… until a voice on the tannoy would tell us not to. Pitch invasions were easy and we would often get autographs as the players trudged off after the final whistle. On either side of the pitch were basic seating areas; a wooden stand including the press area and a pick ‘n’ mix of more modern orange, yellow and black seats (club colours).
Each week you would see the same people in the same places, though not on this occasion. Against Telford it seemed like the whole town had come to watch. New faces everywhere, and all attracted by the prospect of Wembley’s twin towers.
The Wokingham team they came to watch was modest. Our trump card was goalkeeper Lee Bracey, who had recently joined on loan from West Ham. His agility and quick thinking were astonishing and he joined Swansea City at the end of the 87/88 campaign. The West Ham links didn’t end there, for in the match programme was an advert for Phil Parkes Windows Ltd. Parkes had represented the Irons for 11 years and now offered the best prices without ‘fancy gimmicks, free gifts or pressure salesman’.
At left-back was local boy Phil Alexander, who had left the club in the early eighties to join Norwich before returning via a stint in New Zealand. Phil was solid and could leather a football, so much so that he later signed as kicker for American Football team, London Monarchs. In fact, he broke the record for Britain’s longest kick [54 yards] and became the World League of American Football’s top points scorer in 1991.
The rest of the Wokingham side was led by stoic defender/midfielder and captain David Cox and included a training instructor, a British Army Sergeant and several cast offs with a point to prove. Our biggest signing, at £2,000, was experienced striker David Pearce who joined from Dagenham. He led the line with authority and with his shirt half tucked, half loose – a style I copied for years. He got away with it because he’d netted 32 goals in all competitions, most from his effective left boot. Any hopes Wokingham had of overturning Telford’s advantage hinged largely on his ability to break their resolute back line.
Unfortunately Wokingham’s build up to the second leg had not been ideal. In the first leg, regular right-back Garry Smart had been injured and his replacement Roy Aitken (not that one) ill, meaning Nigel Patterson was drafted in the night before the game. Patterson was unknown to many, meaning that when he took to the field at Telford, the biggest match in Wokingham’s history, only a handful who had seen him play for the reserves knew who he was.
Then came the midweek defeat to Hayes in the AC Delco Cup and, with one competition over, a domino effect began. Despite being roared on by a ludicrous swelling of 2,115, a noise of which was at odds with the surrounding middle-class suburbia, Wokingham exited the competition after an anti-climatic 1-0 defeat (3-0 on aggregate).
The loss was pivotal, for while we returned to winning ways in the league a week later – against ‘Duuulllwwwiiicchhhhh’ – we were then beaten in the Berks & Bucks final by rivals Windsor, a late two-goal salvo not enough to overturn a three-goal deficit. All three cup competitions had been brought to a brutal end inside just 18 savage days.
Wokingham’s league form dipped, too. With eight games remaining and a possible total of 86 points within their grasp, the club finished on 70 in fifth place. League winners Yeovil Town collected 81… and look what happened to them!
Despite the disappointment, the 1987/88 campaign and the club itself will live long in the memory. In many ways, Wokingham had been a victim of their own success and simply didn’t have the squad to compete on four fronts. Unfortunately the club failed to reach such heights again and was later forced to ground share with various clubs after their ground made way for an identikit housing estate. The club tiptoed towards oblivion, but was reformed in 2004 as Wokingham and Emmbrook and now plays in the Hellenic Football League Division One East.
The Wokingham Town as I know it are gone but certainly never forgotten. Non-league football has a very important place at the heart of smaller communities. Make sure you never take it for granted, for it can easily be taken away.
Thanks to Dad and the Knotts for the memories.